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Freed Italian hostages arrive home


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Cupertino, right, kisses his niece Carmella at the Rome airport.
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The freeing of hostages in Iraq.
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ROME, Italy (CNN) -- Three Italians held hostage in Iraq for nearly two months have arrived home to an emotional welcome.

Umberto Cupertino, Maurizio Agliana and Salvatore Stefio were greeted by their families and a high-raking Italian government delegation in scenes of joy and tears.

Their landing, at Rome's military airport of Ciampino, was broadcast live on five of Italy's seven national television networks.

There was a thumbs up from one of the three as he hugged a family member. The father of Stefio greeted his son by kneeling on the tarmac and clutching an Italian flag in one hand.

CNN's Alessio Vinci said the elder Stefio had kept the flag throughout the hostages' ordeal and said that if they were freed he would present it to the Italian president.

Vinci said that Italian media had covered the hostages' release as a "major, major event" breaking into regular programming with the news.

The safe return of the three -- a fourth Italian hostage was shot dead -- was seen as a boost for the government before this weekend's European elections.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who sent peacekeeping troops to Iraq despite widespread opposition among Italians to the war, said the safe release of the hostages was proof his government's policies in Iraq were working.

The three Italians were freed Tuesday after 56 days in captivity. Also freed Tuesday was a Polish hostage, Gerzy Kos.

Kos was one of two employees of a construction company kidnapped June 1 from their Baghdad homes by "unknown individuals," the Polish-led command said.

Italian Fabrizio Quattrocchi was executed shortly after the group was kidnapped April 12.

A written statement from a group calling itself the Green Brigades gave Italians five days to organize demonstrations calling for Berlusconi's government to withdraw its 2,700 troops from Iraq. Otherwise, it said, the other hostages would be killed.

Thousands of Italians -- most of whom opposed their country's participation in the war that overthrew Iraqi President Saddam Hussein -- later marched in Rome, but relatives of the hostages stressed the demonstration was not a call to withdraw troops.

Tuesday's operation to release the men, led by Polish and U.S. special forces, took place after an intensive intelligence investigation, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said.

It took place in the southern part of Baghdad Tuesday morning, and Frattini said no ransom had been paid.

Flanked by an Italian and a Polish diplomat, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, head of U.S. military forces in Iraq, told a news conference in Baghdad Tuesday the military operation took place south of Baghdad and was conducted by a "combined" team of "coalition forces."

"All of the hostages were at the same location," he said.

Sanchez could not say what group the abductors were affiliated with.

"At this point in time, there's no reported exchange of fire," said Sanchez, who could not give the precise location of the operation.

Two Turks and an Iraqi Turkoman driver who had been seized by gunmen in Iraq were also released Tuesday.

CNN Rome Bureau Chief Alessio Vinci contributed to this report


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